Memories, musing and mischief

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Time is fluid at Halloween.  It is the old Celtic new year, when past, present and future merge.  On this night, all borders dissolve and we can commune with our ancestors or see our future.  Summer has ended and the sun will slumber until spring.  It is the time of Hecate, the crone goddess who both guides us to the land of the dead and is ready to act as midwife to the rebirth of the sun at the winter solstice.   This is the gateway between the old and the new year, when the wheel turns and the cycle begins again.

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It is appropriate that the world is unsettled leading up to Halloween.  Rain, gales and thunder have assailed us in the past week.  A storm is making its way across the country and the sky is full of a luminous darkness.  Now and then, I hear the squawks of geese, as they pass over on their migration from the arctic.  The trees have begun to turn: the small sycamores and the horse chestnuts are the first to show their colours and the ground already crackles with leaves.  There is a hint of smoke in the air and the clatter of fireworks leading up to Bonfire Night.  Fittingly, it is the crows that now seem to colonise the green spaces, tricksters and harbingers of death and magic that they are.

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This is a time to celebrate the wisdom of age and experience.  On Halloween night, our ancestors may choose to visit us, so we might set a place at the dinner table for them or leave offerings of food outside or on their graves.  The pumpkin lanterns now traditional at Halloween have evolved from the candles that were left in the window all night to guide the dead home.  It is a tradition at Halloween to create an altar to your ancestors, containing photos and mementoes that honour them and trigger memories.  It is a good time to consider the gifts your ancestors have given you, both genetically and through the lives they lived.  But you might also recognise the strangers that have gone before – the writers and artists that have inspired you and stoked your creativity.

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Halloween signals the death of summer and the old year, for which we mourn, but we also look into the future.  This is the best time of year for divination, when we use the old arts, such as scrying and Tarot, to gain guidance about what is to come.  Winter is the still, dark time of the year, when the earth retreats and we have space to delve into the hidden places within us.  This is where the cycle of our creativity begins.  Time to ponder our dreams and hopes for the year to come.  The hushed repose of winter is when our vision for what this year could be is dreamed into being.  That spark of creativity is always there, though it may not seem so in the dark, cold months, until the winter solstice, when it will be symbolically reborn.

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Halloween is a time of deep thinking and remembrance, but it is, of course, also the season of mischief.  The chaos and unpredictability of winter will last for many months.  For our ancestors, it was a time of great tension as they worried if the harvest would help them survive the winter.  The mischief of Halloween is both a challenge to and a light-hearted acceptance of the uncertainty to come.  The costumes are disguises to protect us against malevolent influences.  The traditions, such as bobbing for apples, an affirmation of life.  Creativity is often kindled out of chaos. So before the introspection of winter, why not indulge in a little mischief and see where it leads you?

What my dog teaches me

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The world is a different place when you have a dog.  Strangers approach to talk.  People greet you and smile.  Walks are punctuated by stops for conversation and new encounters.  A whole community of fellow dog lovers opens up and welcomes you in.  You are no longer invisible to, or isolated from, your fellow humans.  The presence of the dog draws you together, a reason, or an excuse, for contact.

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Dogs have always guided us.  In mythology, they are liminal creatures, guarding the threshold to the home or the borders to other worlds.  Hecate is accompanied by dogs as she escorts us on our journey from this world to the next.   Dogs represent companionship and loyalty, but they are also the untamed, howling creatures that attend the fearsome wild hunt as it tears across the countryside.

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I’m a different person when I’m with my dog.  Up at dawn, into the still-slumbering world, I’m able to see the town as it’s tinged with sunrise and hear the morning calls of the birds.  I rediscover my neighbourhood, walking streets and open spaces I haven’t frequented for years.  I fully experience the changing of the seasons, as darkness gives way to light, flowers begin to pepper bare grass and barren branches burst into blossom.  My favourite beauty spots are seen anew, through the eyes and nose of my puppy, as he discovers grass, beach, sea for the first time.

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My dog lives fully and in the moment.  When he wakes, he is completely awake and excited to meet the day.  He is curious about every sound, every smell, every view.  He greets places we visit every day with the same enthusiasm as if he’d never been there before.  Everything is a potential toy, whether it’s a ball or an old sock.  My dog is a perfect example of not judging a book by its cover.  Every person, and every dog, is a potential friend, including those that I would be tempted to avoid.  He doesn’t know what a grudge is, greeting everyone in the same excited way, even if they’ve ignored or snarled at him before.  Every morning and every time I return home, it’s obvious how happy he is to see me.  And when he finally gives in to sleep, he surrenders to it entirely, twitching and mewling and barking through his dreams.

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When I’m with my dog, I don’t worry about the usual things that concern me.  When I’m with my dog, I don’t dwell or plan, or become anxious.  When I’m with my dog, I’m focused on nothing but him and the environment we’re in, watching him play, or sniff, or discover new things.  Being with my dog is like a walking meditation, when the world becomes clearer and more present.

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Since our dog came to live with us, seven months ago, he’s given me the gift of acceptance.  He dispels the need to be more, do more, have more.  Since he came, I’ve changed almost without noticing.  I’m content simply to be with him, to experience life with him.  He helps me to value simple pleasures.  No matter how tired or pressured I am, I’m forced out of bed, or off the couch and out into the world.  My dog refreshes me, giving me a break from the person I sometimes have to be.  He encourages me to do more than exist every day.

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To live like a dog is to start each day enthusiastically and with curiosity.   To find pleasure and excitement in every simple thing, whether or not you’ve done and seen them before.  To accept and embrace friends and strangers alike, without pre-judgement.  To live with a dog is to walk alongside a creature who can teach you to recognise that life, at its simplest, is about being where you are and cherishing it.

The gleam of the lantern

Sometimes you know that you need to withdraw from the world to replenish your energy and re-charge your inspiration.  Sometimes too much work, too much creativity, too much stimulation stops buoying you up and becomes obsessive, repetitive.  I know it’s too much when the period before sleep becomes clogged.  The air and the darkness feel too thick and I wake endlessly with the same looping dream image in my head every time.  But still, although you might know it, sometimes you need a little push to slow you down.

For weeks, I’ve been over-stimulated.  Preparing for the opening of a major new building at work, weekly blog posts, revising my novel, painting, and so many ideas jostling for attention.  I didn’t notice the small signs telling me to slow down because I was caught up in the buzz of activity – at turns feeling both overwhelmed and intoxicated by the pressure of it.  And so the day before the Easter weekend came, and there was no more I could do at work to prepare for the opening of the building the following week.  I now had four days that I could fill with all the activities I had no time for when I was working.  But barely an hour after I got home, full of plans, the flu landed and gave me no choice but to step back from the world for a while.

The Hermit - Hanson Roberts deck

The Hermit – Hanson Roberts deck

During my enforced retreat, I’ve been reflecting on the symbol of the Hermit, from the Tarot.  A lone robed figure, with a long white beard, he’s an archetypal symbol of the wise man.  He carries a staff and a lantern, lit with a six pointed star.  He holds the lantern up, as if to light our way, and the expression on his face is calm and content.  Generally, The Hermit represents a period of withdrawal from the world, often during a time of transition.  The lantern can be said to represent guidance, which can come from an outside teacher, but often represents the inner guidance you receive when you stop your world and listen to your self.  To me, the Hermit is a friend and his lantern lights the path I must follow to reach my own spark of insight.  I find it a calming, comforting symbol, like a deep, satisfying sigh of relief.  Hecate too, often has a lantern to guide us, and although the Tarot most often depicts the Hermit as a man, the Hermit can be a wise person of either sex.  The lantern really represents what we already know, if we’d only take the time to listen to ourselves.  It’s the wisdom within – not a catch all wisdom for the world, but the wisdom that is right for us and our lives.

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It could be said that the writer / artist has a little more of the Hermit in them than most.  The creative life is usually a solitary one.  Unless working in collaboration, only the individual can do the work necessary to create their work of art, using their own inner reality to create what goes on the paper / canvas.  But in this modern world, with the Internet, social media and 24/7 information overload, even if you don’t have an outside job, there’s still a need to get in touch with your inner Hermit now and again.  It’s still necessary to disconnect from the outside world and focus just on that glow coming from the lantern that is your creative spark.   You may prefer to work with a real Hermit figure that you can personify and ask for guidance, to keep you company on your journey, or you may choose only to focus on the flame itself and the glow of what’s inside it.  Either way, it will tell you what you need, and what you need may seem to have nothing to do with your next great creation at all.

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My withdrawal from the world was temporary and short, but when not in the throws of the illness, I had time to appreciate the simple pleasures of the weekend, rather than rushing to fill it with yet  more projects and activities.  Short walks in the first real spring sunshine with the dog, a home-cooked meal, good coffee and sleep.  And in the end I did create, working leisurely on a single painting, just for the pure enjoyment of it.  I didn’t learn any major life lessons beyond the ones I already know but sometimes forget: that sometimes you need to just slow down and live a simple life and your creativity will be all the stronger for it.

The courage to press the button

She is often viewed as a goddess of death, witchcraft and the underworld, but to me, Hecate is also a goddess of choice, courage and transformation. Hecate is with us for the most important moments of our lives: she is the midwife that brings us into life, the Crone who guides us into death and the protectress watching over every crucial choice we make. She is a triple goddess, representing the phases of the moon and the major stages in women’s lives. And she is a goddess of the in-between: of crossroads, gates, borders and boundaries. She holds torches to illuminate the unconscious, protects us on journeys and from the chaos we sense outside.

When I visualise Hecate, I see a dark figure standing at the side of a lonely road. She is waiting to guide me on a journey.

For years, I wrote. My first memory of writing is sitting in a bus shelter in rainy darkness, re-writing the Nancy Drew mystery I’d just read. After that, I remember writing as a compulsion: stories, diaries, letters to pen-friends. I wrote constantly, but never had the confidence to call myself a writer.

I carried on writing as I went to university, trained as a librarian, set up my first home with my partner. And eventually, I wrote a novel. That was my first turning point as a writer, when I realised I had it in me to finish a novel. I began to submit stories to competitions and for publication, and though I wasn’t successful, I was taking myself seriously now. I became an ‘aspiring writer’, but still didn’t quite have the confidence to call myself a writer.

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Seven years ago, my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. We began a long journey of caring for her until her death in a hospice four years later. Those years blurred into one long round of endless visits, whether to hospitals, rehabilitation centres, hospices, or trying to care for her in her own home, while still working full-time and trying to have something of a life. During that time, I lost the ability to concentrate. Whereas previously, I lived with a book in my hand, I found that I didn’t have the concentration to read. My compulsion to write vanished, as I no longer had the concentration to put words together. I discovered a love of painting in place of words.

It’s just over two years since my mother died and I feel Hecate waiting for me at another of those crossroads. Very slowly, I’ve started to write again. I’ve had my first small writing successes, winning prizes in competitions. It’s time to return to the serious business of being a writer: to polish my novel after years of neglect, to write more short stories, to simply write. I now try to fit both writing and painting around a full-time job. Writing isn’t my primary job, but I do see it as my true work. And I finally have the confidence to call myself a writer.

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But it’s one thing to call myself a writer, and quite another to have the confidence to show my writing to the world – to have the courage to hit the ‘publish’ button. And this is where Hecate comes in: helping me to find the courage to cross the boundary between anonymity and owning myself. Harvesting Hecate is about harnessing a little of Hecate’s wisdom to illuminate the journey ahead of me.